When I first became a worship leader, I was given a copy of John Newton’s biography by Jonathan Aitken. Newton is known as the writer of the great Christian hymn, "Amazing Grace." As I picked up the book, I mostly was looking forward to getting a more complete picture of Newton’s radical conversion, of which I’d only heard bits and pieces. As remarkable as his conversion was, I was more drawn to the account of his ministry that followed as an evangelical Anglican cleric in Olney. Most of the people in this small market town were poor and uneducated.
Newton was a very caring, loving pastor who went beyond the call of duty.
Aside from the duties assigned to him, he held Bible studies, informal discussions and was personally involved in the lives of his parishioners.To him it was a priority that those in his congregation would not only hear the Word of God, but be able to grasp the depths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
This inspired Newton to explore innovative ways of communicating his sermons to the people. He made a strong emphasis on singing and used hymns to help his congregation learn biblical truth. He was extremely gifted at teaching children and wrote songs that would help them learn their lessons. He soon adapted this practice for the adults as well. Since most of his congregants were uneducated and illiterate, Newton began writing hymns to go along with his sermons.
A close friendship with the great poet, William Cowper, would further inspire Newton.
Together, they compiled a book of 348 hymns known simply as Olney Hymns. Sixty-seven of the hymns were written by Cowper and 281 were written by Newton. They would even write hymns to mark significant events in the church. For example, when the Tuesday prayer meeting was moved to the great hall, they each wrote a hymn in which they expressed gratitude and asked the Lord’s blessing on future meetings. These hymns were included in the hymnal under numbers 43 and 44. This is how Aitken writes of the context in which Newton’s most famous hymn (included in Olney Hymns as Hymn 41) was written:
"'Amazing Grace' was conceived by Newton in late December 1772 as part of the preparations he was making for a New Year's Day sermon to his parishioners on January 1, 1773. The notion of writing a hymn in order to prepare for a sermon would have been alien to most eighteenth-century clergymen, but Newton was an ingenious innovator in this field of spiritual communication. In the previous two years he had been experimenting with the highly unusual activity (for a Church of England incumbent) of writing People's Hymns. This activity stemmed from Newton's realization that the principal religious books of the established church, the King James Bible and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, were full of words and phrases that uneducated people found difficult to understand. As his Olney congregation consisted largely of lace-makers, agricultural laborers, malting workers, blacksmiths, carpenters, and other artisans or tradesmen, Newton thought he could help them to understand the Scriptures if he amplified his sermons by writing simply worded hymns that illustrated the biblical passages on which he was preaching."¹
This approach challenged me to reevaluate the role of music in the worship service. Here are three things I think we can learn from John Newton’s example:
1. The impact of music.
You might see this point as simplistic and maybe not worth mentioning, but this is what makes music both a great tool, and potentially, a great distraction. Think of how certain melodies can get stuck in your head for hours, days, weeks even! Music is powerful. It leaves it’s imprint on our minds and our hearts.
Because of the dynamic effect it can have on us, there is a danger for music to become the center of attention in our services. I’ve known many worship leaders over the years who saw their ministry as something completely isolated from the teaching ministry and from every other ministry in the church, even going as far as seeing it as the center of the spiritual life of the church.
I believe music actually loses its power with this approach. I believe that music is most powerful when it is serving a purpose greater than itself: when it leads us to and deepens our understanding of the love of Jesus Christ in all of it's height, depth, width and length. Newton did this wonderfully as he used singing to reinforce his messages. Everything that happens in our services should be part of a unified ministry to the Lord and to the Body.
This is what inspired me to write songs. I never felt I was gifted in this area. But as I sat Sunday after Sunday, listening to my brother George preach, I would try to think of a song to fit the theme or passage. I became frustrated with how limited we were in being able to convey more specifically the immeasurable depths and innumerable aspects of the gospel in a way that was relevant to the context and culture of Ternopil, Ukraine. So I started writing songs. And with each song I’ve written, I can remember a specific period in our growth as a church, the passage we were studying at the time, struggles we were all facing or joys we were experiencing.
2. Songs in the local church.
Globalization has put the world at our fingertips. There are most definitely advantages to this. In fact, too many to list them all here. I am most grateful for the ability to access worship songs written all over the world that minister to christians everywhere. I’m constantly hunting on Spotify, Youtube and Facebook to find more of these songs to listen to and worship to. However, I think it’s easy for us to lose sight of what is happening “here” - in the context each of us has been placed.
We are all part of a community of believers with a unique culture and even subculture, a unique set of circumstances, strengths, struggles, tastes and tendencies. Have you ever asked, “What is God doing here?” “What are we experiencing that is unique?” I believe that these types of questions provide an opportunity for songs to be written that minister in a profound way in your church. And God has a wonderful way of using the unique circumstances of a small country church like the one in Olney, Buckinghamshire, to minister to His church all over the world.
3. Songs with depth.
I believe this approach also helps avoid clichés in writing songs. I often have found myself trying to simply fill up the lines with whatever “christian” words and phrases I could think of. As we meditate on and experience the truths of the Word of God, it gives us a focus and desire to convey with clarity and beauty particular aspects of the glorious grace of God as they are impressed on our hearts.
So I would encourage you to write songs! Write them for your church and from your church. I love songs by Hillsong ("What a Beautiful Name" is my favorite song right now!), Matt Redman, Tim Hughes and many others. The Lord has used so many of their songs in tremendous ways in my life. I’m just convinced that there are more songs that could and should be coming out of churches across the globe. In writing songs - listen! Listen to the Spirit. This doesn’t just mean finding a quiet place where you can sit with your guitar, Bible and notepad. The Spirit speaks through the church - through those you minister with and to. He speaks through the Word you study together; He speaks through the joys and hardships you share as a body. This is why Paul writes to the Ephesians:
“…Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
¹ Jonathan Aitken, From Disgrace to Amazing Grace: The Biography of John Newton